Bad intuitions about masking: Japan, 1933

Reading the gripping recent book by Uwe Wittstock on the activities of German writers and artists in the shock of February 1933, I just came across this passage from the little-known writer Hans Michaelis, published in the Berliner Morgenpost, reported from Japan on a medical innovation against the dangerous wave of flu then circling the globe:

„Die Bazillenmaske: Ein Oval-geschnittenes schwarzes Stück Tuch wird vor Mund und Nase gebunden, und hat die schwere Aufgabe den Bazillen den Eintritt zu verwehren.“ Allerdings wird die Mund-Nase-Maske, zur Überraschung von Michaelis, nur unter freiem Himmel getragen. In der Bahn und im Büro setzen die Japaner die Maske ab. “Sie sind der Überzeugung, dass sich die Grippeerreger vor allem auf der Strasse verbreiten, nicht in geschlossenen Räumen.”

“The bacteria-mask: An oval of black cloth is tied in front of the mouth and nose, and has the challenging task of denying entry to any and all bacteria.To be sure, these nose-and-mouth masks are only worn outdoors, much to Michaelis’s surprise. In the train and in the office the Japanese take the masks off. They are convinced that the flu germs spread mainly on the street, not in enclosed spaces.

Several things stand out about this report: First, how strange it is to see the hygienic mask as a new piece of technology. Particularly since we‘ve now all seen photographs from the US from the 1918-19 flu pandemic. It‘s not clear to me what was known when about the usefulness of medical masks.

Second, it‘s interesting to see innovations from Japan being taken so seriously, by an early 20th century European.

Third, when I visited Japan in 2005 I was interested to see so many people wearing masks on the street. I attributed this to the recent experience of SARS, but possibly the affinity for medical masks goes back much further.

Finally, there is this restriction of masks to outdoors, exactly the opposite of what we learned to do with COVID. I wonder if there was some misconceived medical theory behind this, or if it was simply the common intuition that one is safe indoors. Seeing public transport as “safe” in that way seems very strange, though.

The unbearable heaviness of buildings: Another episode in the series “Useless units”

Apparently, Manhattan is sinking by 1-2mm per year, due to the weight of its skyscrapers. The Guardian reports on the research led by Tom Parsons, of the US Geological Survey, saying that New York City’s buildings “weigh a total of 1.68tn lbs”.

What’s that, you say? You don’t have any intuition for how much 1.68 tn lbs is? The Guardian feels you. They’ve helpfully translated it into easy-to-grasp terms. This, they go on to say, “is roughly equivalent to the weight of 140 million elephants”.

Annals of the missing comma — Fox lawsuit edition

I love the genre of found sentences that illustrate the importance of punctuation in written English (or tone in spoken English) to determine the meaning. There was, for example, the description of a documentary film about Merle Haggard, informing us that “among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” And the too-good-to-check book dedication “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Anyway, today’s Guardian recounts the racist text message that may have inspired the recent firing of Tucker Carlson, and then proceeds to discuss the sexual harassment suit by a former producer on Carlson’s show, quoting the network as having said

We will vigorously defend Fox against all of her legal claims which have no merit.

Which immediately suggests that many of her legal claims do have merit, and they are planning to offer only a token defense against those. Possibly they meant to say “We will vigorously defend Fox against all of her legal claims, which have no merit.” It’s not clear whether Fox “said” this in writing, in which case it’s all on them, or orally, in which case the Guardian is being, at the very least, a bit mischievous.